Long slow runs dominated PT along with requisite pull-ups, pushups, and some token crunches (it was pretty easy to max out on the crunches portion of the PFT back then because of some spotter love). Tactical fitness was developed in the field by doing all that ill infantry shit. Any weight training we did was just to look good when we went to the beach or out to the bars.
But if you looked around at the Staff NCO’s, growing old in the infantry seemed like a scary prospect. Bad backs, busted knees, hunched shoulders, and premature aging were part of the job. I saw a First Sergeant when I first got in that I swore was in his 50s or 60s, but was astounded to hear that he was 36! Granted, I was 19 and everyone looked old.
Today, advancements in exercise and nutrition science have taught us that such a focus on long slow distance endurance training combined with sub-standard diet staples like MRE’s, chow hall food, dip, cigarettes, beer, hard liquor, and cheaply made beef jerky can definitely cause premature aging, injury, heart disease, and neurological disorders.
Ok, so the diet may not have changed much, but our ideas about tactical preparedness and conditioning have.
The goal of this article is to give you a solid handle on building your own routine for tactical strength and power. I’ll give you a sample routine at the end of this, but remember one thing: you’re you and I’m just some old fuck. Scale the workout where appropriate, and change it as fits your own needs and limitations. With that, let’s get into it.
Mobility is probably one of the most neglected aspects of fitness in general, but it’s definitely neglected too much in tactical athletes.
Yeah, I know, you stretch everyday in PT. Stretching covers flexibility, but it really doesn’t cover mobility. Mobility is the ability to move a joint through it’s full range of motion with control. The key there is control. Flexibility is passive. It means that you can be bent in a lot of different ways and avoid injury.
While flexibility is important, mobility is what’s going to keep you from getting injured when you’re actively doing something. For the absolute best treatise on mobility, I highly recommend Kelly Starrett’s book Becoming the Supple Leopard. It is a veritable encyclopedia of mobility exercises and you can trouble shoot specific mobility problems by using it’s index.
But, in case you have some aversion to books, here’s a few videos from Kelly that you can use to work on some common problem areas. This is NOT everything. You will need to work on other areas as they come up, and again I highly suggest that you do check out Kelly’s book and YouTube channel Mobility Wod.
Back and hips - these are big areas of concern for anyone in a combat MOS. Carrying heavy loads can take it’s toll and scar tissue can build up that will reduce mobility and increase the potential for injury.
Shoulders - If you’re missing the ability to rotate your shoulders, you’re basically waiting for injury. Long loaded pack carries over activate the front deltoid and cause scar tissue build up. This is a fantastic way to work on those soft tissues and get those shoulders in working order.
Knees - Knee pain and knee injuries are probably some of the most common injuries we see in combat MOS service members.
Despite the fact that service members and first responders need to move in many different directions and in many different modalities, I rarely ever see any organized effort to practice movement aside from low crawling. The truth is that in a tactical situation, you may need to move many different ways ranging from low crawling to duck walks, and you’re probably not going to be able to stretch or warm up before hand.
Here is a simple routine you can do to incorporate more movement into your training from Vahva Fitness. Enjoy the groovy music:
Another fantastic movement modality is martial arts and grappling. I just started Jiu Jitsu this year, and I can already tell that I’m moving better. Jiu Jitsu forces you to move in ways that you’re often not used to by putting you into some highly disadvantageous positions. Additionally, at any good Jiu Jitsu gym, the entire warmup is a movement practice. Plus, if you’re going to learn to move, you might as well be learning to move while becoming more lethal!
Ok, we all wanna be jacked and tan, but in order to perform, we also need to be strong and explosive. This comes from training not just body parts, but movement patterns. Here are some exercises you should be including to strengthen your body for any tactical situation. Again, this is not everything. You should be working in assistance exercises to fill in any holes and weak points. This also does not include core training, which I will cover in another blog post. I will say, however, that competency in these movements will lead to a stronger core and a stronger foundation.
This one is a hard one for most people because of the shoulder mobility required to do it, but it also mimics the patterns that most athletes need to work in order to be efficient at what they do. It trains thoracic extension, which will increase your strength and protect your spine. Of course, the back squat is also awesome at this, but if you are in a tactical or athletic situation, most of the time you will be lifting from the front. As such I recommend learning the olympic front squat and including it in your routine as a strength builder. Here’s a cool instructional video from our own Warrior Soul Agoge exercise library:
This is a really difficult exercise as well for many people who lack thoracic and shoulder mobility, but it is a fantastic way to build leg and core strength. It can be done either with a barbell or a dumbbell or kettle bell:
Of course, you should also learn the deadlift and all of its variants as well. This will help you to strengthen your posterior chain, protect your back, and it’ll turn you into a beast. Here’s a tutorial video on the conventional deadlift and the snatch grip deadlift. The snatch grip is a great variant because it also helps you to train thoracic extension and grip strength.
Lifting irregular objects is a fantastic way for tactical athletes to prepare for the unknown. Things like tire flipping can help to build strength and conditioning like no other. Additionally, as there is no eccentric portion to a tire flip, it does not tear into muscles like other lifts. So you can do it multiple times per week:
The overhead press is one movement that I see getting completely screwed up. Again, this requires a good degree of shoulder and upper back mobility to perform correctly. Watch these videos closely and pay attention to that external rotation of the shoulder.
Dips are extremely important for training good body position during any pressing movement and thoracic extension. You can add weight to these, but I would wait until your mobility is good enough to train enough depth.
This video from Strength Camp gives a great tutorial on body positioning and what it should be during a dip:
There’s always been a big debate on whether you should train kipping pull-ups or dead hangs. Of course you should be training dead hangs first and foremost to build maximal strength and your PFT score if you’re in the Marine Corps, but kipping pull-ups also help with generating power from the hang and can help to train you for tactical situations. So my suggestion is to train both:
A lot of people confuse strength and power. Maximal strength is the amount of force you can apply against a load, while power is the max amount of force you can exert in the least amount of time. While maximal strength can help you with power, power is also a skill that should be developed on its own. Lifting “fast” is one method of developing power in your routine.
High pulls are great because they do not require the high level skill set that the olympic lifts do, and there is far less risk of injury. Olympic lifts take a good amount of time to master and if mobility is not optimized, there’s a big risk of joint injury if loads grow too fast. High pulls help to train the fast hip movement that’s required to develop functional power without the mobility demand.
Another great way to develop power without the skills required for olympic lifting is via the kettle bell. Swings are a fantastic beginner exercise that help to train the hinge, which is an essential base movement to most total body movements required in any tactical or strength situation.
The snatch adds a small degree of skill, but again offers a quick and easy way to train total body power while minimizing chances for injury as long as you are doing the movement properly:
Kettle bell cleans provide much of the same benefit:
Sand bag cleans add an element of reality. Chances are, if you’re cleaning something in a tactical situation, it won’t be completely balanced. Sandbags are a great way to train for tactical fitness:
The ultimate in power, backward tosses allow you to practice real power by throwing an object through time and space. My favorite way to do this is with a tire. Here’s a workout where we incorporated these with some of the other movements in this article:
There’s a host of other methods to train power. So many that we could fill a book. But these should give you a good baseline to start from.
One thing I spent far too much doing with little result for my endurance capabilities was slogging out countless miles running at a steady state every single day that I could.
At a minimum I would run 3 miles and sometimes, I’d go as high as 6.
And guess what? My PFT time barely ever changed for the amount of work I was putting in. I ran a 20:30 once as my best time, and the rest ranged between 21 and 22 minutes. The amount of running I did rarely ever impacted my time and I was still sucking wind on ranges and on humps.
Today, at 38 years old, I can run 3 miles in 21 minutes and I only run twice a week. I roll Jiu Jitsu, and even though my technique still sucks (I’m a white belt), I still get by because I out-condition kids 10-20 years my junior.
Yes, you should do some steady state running, and I’m sure your command will still make you do it, but not everyday and it shouldn’t be the only conditioning work you do.
You should split your endurance training into three different kinds of workouts. High intensity interval training (HIIT), strength endurance, and steady endurance. This will help to incorporate everything you’ll face in a tactical situation.
This will also increase your preparedness for tactical situations in two ways: 1) it will decrease your chances of overuse injury, and 2) it will make you more effective at your job. Outside of humps, you probably won’t be doing much steady state work in the field, and regardless of how fast you are, running in shorts and a tee shirt with sneakers on isn’t going to prepare you to carry those loads. Using this split should prepare you for what you actually have to endure.
Frequency: 3 times per week
Description: High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) entails short bouts of intense exercise followed by brief periods of rest. This type of training mimics much of what you will be doing in a tactical situation by raising your heart rate and then lowering it in intervals.
Tabata Circuits: Tabata circuits involve doing any strength exercise for as many repetitions as possible for 20 seconds, followed by 10 seconds of rest, for a total of four minutes. This protocol works well with total body exercises like squats, deadlifts, kettle bell swings, burpees, and thrusters. You can either work with weights for resistance or you can do them with your own bodyweight.
The biggest benefit with Tabatas is that you can do them anywhere and the workout lasts a total of only four minutes. Don’t let the short work period fool you. Tabata workouts are some of the hardest workouts you will ever endure. So if you’re using weights, be sure to make sure that they aren’t heavy.
Complexes: Complexes are groups of resistance exercises performed at high intensity for set periods of time or repetitions. You can do complexes with barbells, dumbbells, kettle bells, or sandbags.
The Dumbbell Bear is a complex that includes five dumbbell deadlifts, five dumbbell hang cleans, five dumbbell presses, and five dumbbell squats done every minute on the minute for 20 minutes. This will wear you out!
Here’s something that a lot of people do not understand: running 3 miles in sneakers and shorts DOES NOT prepare you for humps or patrolling with a full combat load. If you’re training for tactical strength, you need to be training strength endurance.
That means carrying heavy loads for distance over various kinds of terrain, and while wearing the gear that you will be wearing in the field.
This means including a loaded ruck march into the routine, and potentially working with loaded carries for distance.
Though these are very important, you should keep the frequency of these types of training exercises down to once a week or so. Training long distance rucks too often can cause overuse injuries, lack of mobility, joint problems, and lots of hormonal imbalance due to systemic stress on the body.
Doing a 5-8 mile loaded ruck march once a week.
Carrying a 40-50 lb dumbbell or kettle bell around for 3-4 miles.
Monday: Lower body, squat movement pattern
Warm up: mobility exercises
Strength movement: Squat, Front Squat, or Overhead Squat for 5 sets of 5
Power movement : Snatch Grip High Pulls for 5 sets of 8
Conditioning: 2 four minute rounds of tabata kettle bell swings
Tuesday: Strength Endurance
Warm up: Mobility Exercises
Strength movement: Pull up Reverse Ladder - repetitions: 15, 12, 10, 8, 6, 4, 2
Strength Endurance: Carry 55lb kettle bell or sandbag for 3-4 miles.
Conditioning: 10 minutes of burpees
Wednesday: Upper Body Overhead Pressing Pattern
Strength: Overhead Press for 5 sets of 5
Strength: Dips 5 sets of 10
Power: Kettlebell cleans 5 sets of 10
Conditioning: Dumbbell Bear 20 minutes.
3-5 mile run
Friday: Lower Body Deadlift Pattern
Strength Movement: sumo, snatch grip, or conventional deadlift for 5 sets of 5 repetitions
Secondary Strength: Pullups 5 sets of 10
Power: Barbell or Sandbag cleans for 5 sets of 3
Conditioning: As many burpees as you can do in 10 minutes, rest as needed
Ruck 5-6 miles with a 50-80 lb load.
Sunday: Rest Day
A lot of us tend to burn the candle at both ends, but especially those who are actively serving. If you are staying up late, waking up early, and putting your blood and guts into training every single day, you’re treading a fine line between performance and complete breakdown.
Continuing this way means one thing: it may not happen today, tomorrow, or even this year, but at some point something will breakdown. That could be as bad as a complete hormonal breakdown or something like a little nagging injury that will keep you from being 100%. Either way there is a price to be paid.
This means that you need to be concerned with a few different things:
- optimizing your sleep
- protecting your body from over production of chronic inflammation
- reducing unnecessary environmental stressors
- eating a nutrient dense diet
I am convinced that many of the neurological issues, cases of depression, and high veteran suicide rates we are seeing from the recent wars are, at least in part, due to poor nutrition practices during time in service. For more on understanding why this may be, check out this interview with Dr. Mark Gordon.
This is by no means a complete routine, but it is a framework that you can use to strengthen yourself functionally for tactical situations. Of course, the schedule may not align with your own and you may need to tweak it.
Please take what I wrote about recovery very seriously, and if you want to learn more about how you can use nutrition and functional training to enhance your life, extend your longevity in the field, and protect yourself from future issues, you can learn more with our Warrior Soul Fitness Academy newsletter by clicking the image below.